Overcoming Fear for Writers

Whether you’re publishing independently or submitting your manuscript to an agent, putting your fiction out into the world for other people to see requires a tremendous amount of courage. Even attending an in-person writer’s group for the first time and talking about your writing with other people can be challenging.

Putting together something as complex as a novel requires an enormous investment of time and mental energy. People put their hopes, dreams, and desires into their fiction. They infuse their stories with their ideas, many of which can be deeply personal. And so when someone makes the decision to take their work from the privacy of their own files and subject it to public scrutiny, they are exposing a vulnerable part of themselves.

It’s not unlike walking across the grade eight gymnasium-turned-dance floor in front of all your classmates to ask someone to dance. You’re suddenly open to rejection, ridicule, judgement, and in many ways even worst possible reaction: indifference.

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The easy advice to give, and I hear it a lot, is simply to grow a thick skin.

But advice like this does a disservice to the industry. By limiting the works of public fiction to only those writers who can put up with a certain level of criticism, we’re denied all the great stories from writers who can’t overcome this barrier.

Worse, it can propagate attitudes where people believe it’s okay to treat other writers poorly if their work is not up to a subjective and often arbitrary standard.

So here are a few (hopefully constructive) tips on overcoming fear.

Figure Out Your Goals as a Writer

First off, it’s totally fine to write for the sake of writing. People write for all kinds of reasons: to relax, to play with ideas, escape from reality, work through a tough experience, etc. And there’s nothing that says what you write needs to ever been seen by anyone else.

It’s also okay to want to publish ‘at some point’ but that doesn’t have to be now.

One of the best tips for overcoming anxiety around putting your work out there is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to accomplish by doing so, and defining when you want to do that.

Establishing a timeline for yourself can be quite empowering, even if when that timeline is the simple recognition that you’re not ready yet.

Read. A lot.

One of the best pieces of advice for any writer is simply to read. Read the classics. Read what’s hot. Read as much as you can in your genre. Read whatever interests you. But read.

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The point is that through immersion, you learn. You learn what other readers a looking for. You learn the tropes of your genre. You develop an eye for what works, and what doesn’t.

If you compare a person who’s read a hundred books in a given genre, with someone who’s only read one or two, it’s far more likely that the avid reader is going to be better at critically assessing their own writing quality, because they have a much larger frame of reference.

Proofread and Revise Your Work

Maybe this one is obvious.

But it’s important to understand that the works from your favorite authors that you end up pulling off the shelf, or downloading into your e-reader is never a first or second draft. It’s probably not even a fifth or sixth draft. While all authors vary in their process, those who can write something near perfect on the first or second draft are a very rare breed (and among those who do the draft is often meticulously planned out ahead of time).

It’s easier to find courage in presenting something to the world that’s been thought through, reflected on, and reviewed than the first thing that went down on paper.

(The irony of any errors in this post is not lost on me.)

Go Slowly with the Sharing

There are different ways to start sharing your work. You don’t have to publish it publicly just to get feedback.

Finding a writer’s group or a critique group can be a good way to start. Once you’ve met a few other writers and learned a little bit about where they’re at on their writing journey, you can start sharing your work with ones that are willing to give you feedback at a level you’re comfortable with.

Open Conversations

When you do give your work to someone else for feedback, remember you can have an open conversation about what kind of feedback you’re looking for. If you’re not ready for it to come back all marked up with red ink, then say so.

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It’s okay to say that you’re just looking for the positives to begin with. Ask whether your reviewer can identify things that work, parts of the story or characters that resonate with them and why.

You can always progress to more critical feedback as time goes on. And when you want more critical feedback, remember to ask for specifics. How can I get better at…. suspense, dialogue, imagery, character arcs, etc.?

Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase along the lines of “Tear it to shreds.” While perhaps brave, I often wonder if that’s what the writer really wants. How do you grow from something that’s been shredded?

Rather, it’s better to focus on your goals and ask questions like: What recommendations do you have to get this from it’s current draft, to something people will pay me for? What areas of my writing could use the most improvement?

Offer to Give Feedback

There’s no shortage of writers seeking feedback on their work. Even if you’re afraid to put your own work out there, you can still offer to review things that others have written.

In fact, you can learn a lot from reviewing other people’s work. I’ve spent a lot of time on various writing sites and critique groups. When fifty percent of the fantasy novel opening chapters that you read start with a prince or princess waking up and looking out over their kingdom, you very quickly learn that this is not a unique opening.

Be kind with your words.

Do your best to offer the kind of feedback that the author is seeking.

Find an Editor

One final tip is that can really help with overcoming fear as a writer is to seek professional feedback.

Of course finding and hiring an editor can be tricky (and expensive). It’s very important to find an editor who: (i) understands your goals as a writer, (ii) is well-versed in your genre and has some credentials behind the advice they give, (iii) is willing and able to give you critical, but constructive feedback at a level that you’re ready to hear, and (iv) that you can trust.

A good editor won’t just tell you what’s wrong with your writing, but will give you suggestions on how to make it better.

If nothing else, editors act as buffers between you and the rest of the world. If you write something that’s “really bad” they can identify it and flag it before it goes out and they won’t ever say another word about it.

“No matter what anybody tells you. Words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)